Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fasting through the ages: from rebirth to redemption

© Shafiq Morton

The Qur’an is briefly descriptive, but richly evocative, when it broaches the subject of fasting. In Surat ul-Baqarah (the Chapter of the Heifer) we are told to fast as others were prescribed to fast before us.
This verse informs us why we fast – to guard our souls – and specifically, that fasting has a long human tradition. Having made this qualification, we are then told about the significance of Ramadan and how to fast.

Today, Islam is the only monotheistic religion that has institutionalised fasting as a pillar of faith. This it has done by sanctifying a whole lunar month, and telling the believer that the fast is a special worship, its true worth only known to the Creator.

But beyond that, little appears to be recorded historically about the human tradition of fasting. It is established, for example, that before the Revelation came down, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) used to indulge in “tahannuth”, an annual retreat in a mountain cave above Makkah.

Those ancient Arabs who indulged in tahannuth exercised ascetism, but little is known about their actual practices. Fasting, however, would have been familiar to the Arabs via the Jewish tribes in the Hijaz.

The Jewish Halakkah, or Sacred Law, enjoys similarities to Shari’ah on certain questions of fasting. The Jewish Day of Atonement –  the 25-hour fast of Yom Kippur – used to occur on the 10th of Muharram (the 10th of Tishrei) and inspired a famous Hadith.

But where did the practice of fasting originate? The Qur’an, which informs us that fasting was a previously prescribed practice is silent – not wishing to distract the early Muslims with unnecessary detail. Yet it still remains a provocative question. Who started fasting?  

Research shows that almost every revealed religion on earth has utilised fasting. A rare exception is Zoroastrianism, whose origins go back to 2,000 BCE in Persia.

Aboriginal belief, which is the fitrah of human consciousness, uses fasting as a spiritual agent of re-birth. Aboriginal awareness of an afterlife, which is seen in cave drawings from Africa to America, marked a sudden burst of human consciousness over 50,000 years ago.

The question that scientists still struggle to answer today is what was the spark that set off this awareness? Parallels across these cultures seen in their symbolism of the afterlife – as observed by the author Graham Hancock – reveal a collective sub-consciousness.

Was this spark that set off early human spirituality an “Adamic moment” – the real “missing link?” There is no easy answer. Some scholars set prophetic history at about 15,000 years ago. So what about the gap?

The Jinn – those shadowy, fiery figures of a parallel dimension ­– had over 1,000 prophets well before Adam’s (as) creation. However, there are no records of divinely inspired humanoid messengers during that era, although there is overwhelming evidence that some divine consciousness did exist.

Hinduism, regarded as the world’s oldest religion (its actual origins are unknown), developed in the Indus region. It has a universal understanding of fasting, one that would be understood well by Muslims.

Hindu sources describe fasting as an austerity, a “tapas”, which involves the cessation of contact between the bodily senses and their sensory, or source objects. In this tradition, the deprivation of the ears, the eyes, the mouth, the tongue and the stomach allows the brain to focus on God.

But let’s get to the beginning of prophetic history, which is said to have begun in the Indus region when Adam (as) first set foot on Mt Serendib in Sri Lanka. The question is – did the father of modern mankind, Adam (as), fast? I would argue that he did.

For when he reached Makkah and started pleading with Allah, his mouth and his tongue would have been moist with prayer; his eyes would have been blinded with tears; his ears would have rung with words of imprecation, and his stomach would have been empty.

Indeed, Adam (as) was in the primordial state of the person fasting. Being a prophet, devotional perfection would have been his natural state. Us weaker mortals have to deprive our nafs, the cauldron of our desires, first.

Moderation – which  Islam propagates – is evidenced through the fasting of the Buddha. For after six years of zealous ascetism, his ribs “sticking out like the rafters of a hut” and his backbone touching his stomach, he realised he would die before he achieved realisation.

Indeed, it’s reported that only after the Buddha gave up his extreme ways did he finally experience his spiritual awakening.

We’ve spoken about fasting in the Judaic tradition. Fasting is mentioned in the Christian scripture over 30 times. The book of Jonah, for instance, talks about the fast of Nineveh – when prophet Yunus’ people made repentance.

Jesus, the great ascetic, fasted for 40-days in the Judean desert. It culminated in the Shaitan telling him to jump off a mountain to see if Allah would protect him, and Jesus retorting that it was Allah’s job to test him, not his (Jesus’) to test Allah.

Interestingly, the voluntary Christian fast of Lent – usually about 40 days prior to Easter – is said by some historians to have its origins in ancient Egyptian tradition. The temple priests, who had to fast as part of their training, would fast for 40 days before the festival of the god, Osiris.

Osiris, the husband of Isis, was killed by Seth, but in a cyclical realm would enjoy resurrection. The festival, said to celebrate the northern hemisphere spring in April, would culminate in a “baptism”, or rebirth, by the priests bathing in the Nile.

No offence is intended to Christianity. The point of our example is that for thousands of years, the practice of fasting has always meant – in some way or another – a sincere aspiration to a rebirth of the human spirit.

However, Ramadan – which has been bequeathed to mankind by our Creator’s most beloved, Muhammad (SAW) – is something very special indeed. For how many ancient communities could boast that they had a month whose beginning would bestow Mercy, whose middle would confer Redemption and whose end would promise Paradise?


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